A zoo favorite of adults and children alike, the ostrich is truly an interesting animal. From its large size to its odd feathers, this flightless giant is unlike any other. An African native, the ostrich is the sole surviving member of its biological family. As such, this bird displays a number of characteristics and traits that demonstrate its adaptability and a certain gift for responding to environmental pressures.
The ostrich is the world's largest living bird. The average adult male is between 8 and 10 feet tall and weighs in at over 250 pounds. The vast majority of the bird's body weight is encapsulated in its long and powerful legs. A single ostrich stride will carry the bird 12 to 15 feet. Ostriches are able to achieve speeds greater than 40 miles per hour when running and they are able to maintain that speed for more than 30 minutes at a time. Unlike other birds, the ostrich has only two toes. This adaptation reduces the drag coefficient of the limb, enabling the bird to attain greater speeds than many of its predators. Also, each toe ends in a sharp, formidable claw and each leg is capable of kicking with enough force to crush a skull.
The ostrich is a member of an ancient bird family called the ratite. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this group of birds is although they have wings, they cannot fly. The wings of the ostrich are used for balance instead. It extends its wings when running and then, if the bird suddenly needs to change directions, the wings act as a rudder, helping to smoothly steer the bird along a different route and possibly evade predators. The wings are also used in mating rituals and courtship displays. A domineering bird will raise its wings while a subservient one will allow its wings to sag.
Ostrich feathers are not like ordinary bird feathers. The individual fibers hang loose, rather than sticking together. This gives the ostrich a rather dishevelled and unkempt look, unlike the sleek appearance of its flying bird cousins. The feathers of the male ostrich are generally black with white showing on the tips of the wings. The male uses this vivid color scheme to attract the attention of passing females. Holding the wings as wide as possible, a male will approach a female, stamping his large feet as he goes in hopes of impressing the light-brown lady. If he manages to gain her approval, the two birds will mate.
The ostrich has a well-developed sense of sight. Over many generations, the ostrich developed eyes that are almost as big as baseballs. The eye orbs are large and so important to the bird's survival, that the majority of the skull is used to house and protect them. Accordingly, the brain is a good deal smaller than either one of the eyeballs. This may explain why the ostrich is so easily trapped by predators; it can run fast, but it can't think on its feet.
The ostrich prefers to live in a group. This is a good defensive strategy, as there frequently is strength in numbers. The average ostrich community contains 10 to 20 birds, but occasional groups are found with more than 100 members. This type of ostrich colony develops when two different families chance upon each other shortly after chicks have been hatched. The groups will test each other, holding contests and races. The winners will take all the chicks into their group, increasing their own population without having to go to all the trouble of laying eggs and taking care of them until the hatch.
It stands to reason, since the ostrich is the largest bird; their eggs are also the biggest. One ostrich egg weighs about 3 pounds and would take over an hour to hard boil. The female ostrich can lay between 60 and 100 eggs each year. Once they're laid, the eggs take between 38 and 42 days to hatch. During the incubation, the male sits on the eggs and keeps them warm at night, while the female watches over them in the daytime. All of the female birds in an established community put their eggs into one nest to be taken care of by the main female, though she will move her own eggs to the center of the pile to ensure they receive the best care.
When an ostrich is in danger and is unable to ascertain an obvious escape route, it doesn't bury its head in the sand--it plays dead. The bird throws itself to the ground and lies perfectly still. The bird's head and neck are the same color as the surrounding soil. This makes it difficult to see and from a distance, it appears to have hidden its head.
Lisa Parris is a writer and former features editor of "The Caldwell County News." Her work has also appeared in the "Journal of Comparative Parasitology," "The Monterey County Herald" and "The Richmond Daily News." In 2012, Parris was honored with awards from the Missouri Press Association for best feature story, best feature series and best humor series.